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Projects hope to get money now slated for Tropicana Field

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: April 6, 2013 at 12:04 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

In a little more than two more years, Pinellas County will make the final payments on construction bonds for Tropicana Field it began paying in 1986, freeing up roughly $6 million in bed taxes per year.

No surprise, there already is a line to tap into those funds that also could be a key to keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in Pinellas.

The organizers behind a new aquarium in Clearwater, a new Toronto Blue Jays training facility in Dunedin, and an Olympic BMX facility in Oldsmar all are making cases for a share of the revenues. Additionally, county leaders might be forced to spend more bed taxes on beach nourishment projects to offset expected cuts in federal funding.

And if a new poll is any guide, Pinellas residents do not see a new stadium for the Rays as a prudent use of those taxes, which come from a 5-percent tax on lodging.

Almost two thirds of registered voters in Pinellas County would not support tax dollars going toward a new Rays stadium, according to the telephone poll of more than 3,000 registered voters in Pinellas conducted by St. Pete Polls, a division of Fextel Inc., a local software company. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.6 percent.

Worse still for local baseball aficionados, a new ballpark polled third -- below beach nourishment and the Clearwater aquarium -- as the best use for bed taxes.

The numbers attest to how politically difficult it might be for elected officials in Pinellas to push for a new stadium, political analysts say.

“Taxpayers have no appetite for more spending,” said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus. “When you have people unemployed and underemployed; when you have people whose pensions have been cut or whose benefits have been cut; they don't see this kind of use of public funds as fair.”

The poll numbers and the scrum to claim a slice of the taxes also could be a clear signal to Rays executives that public funding for a new stadium will be unlikely.

Rays officials declined to comment on the poll but local analysts say the numbers will capture their attention.

“Either you have politicians who fly in the face of strong public sentiment - which is not very likely - or the numbers will tell the Rays there are not any tax dollars for a stadium,” said Darryl Paulson, a political science professor at USF St. Petersburg.

“It means the Rays will do everything they can to get out of Pinellas County,” he said.

Bed taxes are seen as crucial to public funding of sports stadiums, not least because the tax is levied on tourists and not on residents, making it an easier sell for local politicians concerned about re-election.

While the revenues are small compared to property and sales taxes, the steady revenue stream means local government agencies can sell bonds based on future returns. The $6 million per year that will be freed up in 2015 could generate up to $100 million if bonded over 30 years.

“Rental car taxes and bed taxes are used because they target no residents,” said Rick Eckstein, a sociology professor at Villanova University and author of Public Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle over Building Sports Stadiums. “It shifts the burden on to people who don't live in those areas.”

Last year was a record year for tourism in Pinellas County with more than five million visitors contributing about $28 million in bed taxes.

Pinellas County commissioners decide how the money is spent based on input from the Tourist Development Council.

State law requires spending the money to promote tourism, but that can include projects that will draw tourists such as a sports stadium, a convention center or adding sand to eroded beaches.

All of the projects competing for bed taxes likely would meet the criteria, making it a tough choice for commissioners.

“There is always a feeding frenzy at the end of the bonding period,” said Rick Horrow, visiting expert on sports business and law at Harvard Law School, who has been involved in more than 100 public-private partnerships including stadium projects during the last 30 years. “Lots of other worthy public-private partnerships will set their sights on that funding mechanism.”

The key to securing a share of the tax is likely to be proving a return on investment in the form of attracting more visitors, which in turn boosts tax revenues.

The BMX track in Oldsmar already attracts people to events like the Gator Nationals. A $650,000 upgrade to bring the track up to Olympic standard would mean it could host more national events, bringing competitors and fans to local hotels.

Hoping to capitalize on the success of the “Dolphin Tale” movie, set in Clearwater, city leaders are projecting a proposed new $160 million aquarium will draw $2.5 million visitors a year. But it is not clear how many of those would be area residents.

Fearing the Toronto Blue Jays will look for a new spring training home, Dunedin leaders are discussing building a new stadium for the Major League Baseball team. The project is aimed more at retaining visitors than attracting new ones.

All of those projects could lose out if federal funding for beach nourishment projects is cut.

Pinellas' beaches are regarded as the lifeblood of the county's tourism industry. Pinellas spends about $10 million annually on nourishment projects, with roughly $3 million of that amount coming from bed taxes.

County spending on replenishing the beaches typically is matched with federal or state dollars, but local officials fear the recent federal government cuts will mean less money is available.

“We're very concerned about the federal funding,” said Andy Squires, Pinellas County coastal manager. “The Army Corp. of Engineers is re-examining their long-term budgets.”

Beaches at Sand Key and Honeymoon Island typically erode at the rate of 10 feet per year.

The nine miles of beach along Sand Key requires replenishing every five or six years, Squires said. That cost $35.5 million in 2012.

“For any use of the bed tax there would have to be a business case that shows how it benefits the residents of Pinellas County.” said Commission Chairman Ken Welch “The needs are many and the funding source is limited.”


codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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